House Business during the Pandemic

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:35 pm on 8th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland) 7:35 pm, 8th June 2020

I want to focus on two points that the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister have spoken about in recent weeks. The first is the claim that Members are not in work if they are not here. Last week during PMQs, the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box—I am paraphrasing—that what we are doing will mean that Members get back to work. I do not think it is just my staff and me, or only Labour, SNP, Liberal, Green and Plaid Members—I think it is every Member of this House—whose inboxes have been overwhelmed by panicked constituents after confused announcements from No. 10, statements that the Government wish to clarify several hours later, or statements not made on the Floor of the House, which means their representatives cannot make interventions or question Ministers.

It is insulting to every Member of the House that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House says that we are going “back to work”. It is a shame that the Leader of the House does not have the grace to get up and apologise to all those Members who are having to shield or who have caring responsibilities and cannot be here to take part in these proceedings. I congratulate Mr Carmichael, who made the point only last week that he will not go back to his constituency because of the risk that that would pose to his constituents. This is not acceptable. If we had a genuinely hybrid procedure that involved scrutiny from all parts of the House, that would go some way to allowing every Member parity, fairness and equality and to ensure that they were representing their constituents.

Many Members have mentioned today how many members of the public are being disenfranchised by what the Leader of the House and the Government are putting forward. Interestingly, some estimates suggest that it is about 17 million—a figure that the Leader of the House is normally quite keen to quote when it comes to engaging with the electorate. Funny how he is not so keen on it now.

The second and final point that I want to raise with the Leader of the House—it is something that Jo Gideon mentioned and was also brought up in the Procedure Committee’s public evidence session this afternoon—is this nonsense that Public Bill Committees have been unable to sit because of decisions of the official Opposition, the third party or the smaller parties represented in this House. It is not for me to suggest that any Member misleads the House, intentionally or otherwise, but the reality is that the only party in this House that has stopped Public Bill Committees coming forward to scrutinise Bills is the Conservative party: the Government.

I wish to quote the Leader of the House’s comments to my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz, the shadow Leader of the House, from Hansard. He makes accusations that the usual channels, or indeed the Opposition Chief Whip, have not engaged in appointing Public Bill Committee Opposition Members, but he said:

“May I conclude by thanking the shadow Leader of the House for her continually constructive approach to these matters? It is a real pleasure to be working with her in these difficult times to try to create solutions that will work for everybody. The attitude of the official Opposition has been exemplary, and I am very grateful for that.”—[Official Report, 22 April 2020;
Vol. 675, c. 88.]

How can the Leader of the House make such a statement and then suggest, on the record in a public hearing, that the usual channels, the Opposition Chief Whip, or the smaller parties have refused to put Members on Public Bill Committees? He knows that is not correct.

I understand that the Leader of the House issued a clarification later in the Procedure Committee to qualify what he meant and went on to suggest that House staff had not done what they should have to create a system. He knows that there was testing for hybrid Bill Committees and it worked. He knows that that would have allowed for more Bill Committees, but the Government chose not to do that.

The reality is that the blame rests, as my hon. Friend Clive Efford said, with a rushed decision that has changed week after week, and with the Leader of the House not engaging with the Procedure Committee, not working with Members across the House through the usual channels, and, frankly, making it up as he goes along.